So what’s the difference between speech and language?


We often hear the words speech and language used interchangeably. And while they might mean the same thing when we’re talking casually about communication, to a speech pathologist, these words have very distinct meanings.

Speech refers to the SOUND of what is being said.

It is the sounds we make when we’re speaking such as a ’sh’ or ‘ch’ or an ‘r’ ‘p’ or ‘k’ sound. We use the muscles of our tongue, lips, jaw and vocal tract in a very precise and coordinated way to produce all the recognisable sounds that make up our speech.

Language refers to the CONTENT of what is being said.

It refers to the system of words and symbols – written, spoken or expressed with gestures and body language – that is used to communicate meaning. We have receptive language (understanding of what is being said) and expressive language (the use/content of what is being said). Language is the ‘what’ of what is being said, whereas speech is the ‘how’ of what is being said.

Some other examples of language include:

  • Putting words together to form phrases and sentences
  • Understanding different concepts and sentences
  • Following directions
  • Vocabulary development
  • Using grammar appropriately

Speech and language are different concepts but we need both of them to clearly communicate our message. Not fully developing one of these areas can have an impact on the other.

If a child is having difficulties communicating, it’s important to know if the problems are stemming from their speech skills or expressive language skills. Here’s how to tell, and how to help them.


If your child is having trouble with speech, they may understand what’s being said to them but others may not understand what they are saying. It might be that they are just not able to pronounce words and/or some sentences properly.

For example, if your child says, “da wabbit hopped away,” that’s an indication that their speech skills need working on. The ‘r’ sound is being pronounced as a ‘w’. The words are correct and the way they have been made into a sentence is correct. In this case, you could work with your child on the pronunciation of ‘th’ and ‘r’ sounds through practice. To find out more about the ages and stages of a typically developing child’s speech and language skills, read this post.


If your child is having difficulty with language, they might pronounce their words clearly but use the wrong words or they might put them in the wrong order, making it hard to understand what they mean. For example, they might say “the rabbit come away.” You can help your child by repeating back the correct word, ‘hopped’ in a very casual and conversational way.

When modelling the correct use of language, it’s important to include the correct word as many times as you can. So in this example, you might say something like: “Oh, did you see that? The rabbit hopped away! He hopped all the way to the fence!’

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Bianca Vanstone

Bianca Vanstone is the principal speech pathologist and founder of Limestone Speech, a clinic providing speech pathology services and support for school-aged children and their families living in the Limestone Coast region, South Australia. Prior to establishing her own private practice in 2014, Bianca worked in various paediatric speech pathology roles both in the United States and throughout Australia. Bianca has two small children of her own and is passionate about working with kids with complex development issues, particularly those with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.


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